Sunday, November 03, 2013

Lou Reed's Inferno

(Author’s Note: Two of the characters who appear in this piece, George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin, previously appeared in this piece which fully explains the context in which each appears here.  Another character appears from that same piece but needs no introduction.)

Scene: A tasteful suburban home in Long Island, New York.  A bedroom facing a garden on a sunny afternoon.  In that bedroom is an elderly man, clearly on his death bed, and his wife: Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson.  The end is very near, and both of them know it.  Overhead, the sound of a plane approaching JFK airport echoes in the clear blue sky.

Lou: Here come the planes.  They’re American planes.  Made in America.

Lou has been fading in and out of consciousness, quoting lyrics from both their songs.  Laurie plays along, grasping his hand.

Suddenly Lou feels himself transported to an airplane at night, flying over the ocean.  At first, he feels comfortable and relaxed.  But then the airplane snaps in two, breaking apart just where he is sitting.  The plane plunges towards the black water.  Lou screams and loses consciousness seconds before the plane slams into the ocean.  He wakes up to find himself in a “green room” – a place he knows well from his many television appearances, the waiting area for guests about to appear on camera.  He catches a glimpse of himself in a mirror and realizes he is wearing a Hawaiian shirt, white pants, sandals and a ship captain’s hat.  The door to the green room opens, and a young man in a head set calls out to him.

TV Intern: On in five.

Lou: Wait … what … what the fuck … where’s Laurie?

The door opens again, and Satan walks in.  It has to be Satan, Lou thinks, as this being is a deep shade of red, otherwise appears to be human, save he has two small horns on his forehead, hooves instead of feet and appears to have a tail following him.  Otherwise, he is dressed as a typical TV show producer:  Armani suit, white open-collared shirt, headset and a pair of mirrored shades.  He wears a puka shell necklace and has a perm.

Satan: Lou, glad you could join us.  We’ve been waiting for you.

Lou: What is this?  Am I dreaming?  Who are you?  Where’s my wife?

Satan: Your wife is back on earth, crying right now from what I can see.  This is hell.  You’re not dreaming.  I’m Satan.

Satan extends his hand for Lou to shake.  Lou catches a vague scent of cabbage.  Satan's fingernails are long and pointed.  Lou doesn’t shake his hand.

Lou: I lived in New York in the 70s.  I did my time in hell.

Satan (laughing): Admittedly, I had fun back then, with the garbage strikes, spiraling crime rates, rats and pestilence.  But that wasn’t hell, Lou, not by a longshot.  If anything, that sort of degradation and decay gave you a nice backdrop to build a recording career on.  You should have been sending me residual checks!

Lou: Look, I’ve read Dante’s Inferno.  I know this is bullshit.  Where’s the lake of ice with lost souls buried in it up to their necks?

Satan: Well, we could do that, but it’s been done, actually for Dante himself when he got down here.  No, Lou, here in hell, we try to give you an experience that somehow suits your worst fears, which are never really about physical pain or obvious degradation like you’d read in Dante’s Inferno, or see in a classic painting with winged demons spearing the damned on tridents.  We try to be a little more creative and current than that.

Lou: This can’t be hell.  Well, the way you have me dressed is pretty fucking bad, but I’ve looked worse.

Satan: That you have.  The way you’re dressed is only the beginning.

A beautiful woman in a blue gown strides into the room.  Lou recognizes her immediately: Toni Tennille, of Captain and Tennille fame.

Toni: Daryl, honey, we’re on in three minutes.  Let’s do a great show tonight. 

She kisses Lou on the cheek.

Toni: Are you feeling all right, honey?  Oh, it’s that stage fright again.  Remember what John Denver's guru said?  Just breathe, Daryl, breathe.  We’ll be fine.  See you on the set.

Toni strides confidently from the room, leaving Lou with his mouth still agape.

Lou: She’s down here?

Satan: Not really.  We had to mimic her to create your perfect hell.  But I think you’ll find she’s exactly as Toni Tennille would be circa September 1976.

Lou: And I’m the Captain.

Satan: That’s right, Lou.  You’re the Captain.  And it’s not just that you’re the Captain.  Your hell is a nonstop episode of The Captain and Tennille Variety Hour.  Over and over.  Same tired slapstick and lame vaudeville routines.  Same hit songs.  Same dance numbers.  You play straight banana in bad skits featuring B-level actors who normally appear on Match Game ’76 and The Love Boat.  That’s all you got to do here in hell, Lou.  Be the Captain.  For eternity.

Lou: You do realize my fuckin’ head would explode right now if it could.

Satan: Oh, I could make it happen for you, too!  But that’s too obvious.  Too dramatic.  Hell is not drama, Lou, horror movies got it wrong.  Hell is quiet desperation and the dark realization that things will never get better.  Like the way you’re feeling right now.

Lou: I’ve known some real motherfuckers in my time.  I’ve been one.  I’ve spent years on hard drugs, damaging and destroying every relationship I had.  But you have got to be the biggest prick I’ve ever met.

Satan: Oh, Lou, flattery will get you nowhere.  But thank you, anyway.  I try to be good at what I do.

Lou: I guess there’s no point in telling you I got straight for decades after I nearly threw my life away.  I did good things.  Cared about the people in my life.  Was a good friend.  Gave money to charity.  Played benefits.

Satan: And that was nice of you.  But not enough.  As the songs says, “He worked hard at being good. But his basic soul was stained, not pure.  And when he took his bow, no audience was clapping.”

Lou: Legendary Hearts.  I wrote my own epitaph without even knowing it.

Satan: That’s right.  Great song.  I’m a big fan of yours, even the post-Velvet stuff.  You really understand me and what I’m about, Lou.  It’s like you had a window to my soul sometimes.  I’m sure you heard that all the time from other fans.  We should talk more when you have time because I think we’ll see eye-to-eye on lots of things, and I can use a mind like yours down here.

The young intern comes through the Green Room door, grabbing Lou by the arm.

TV Intern: On in two, Mr. Dragon.  We need you on the set now for blocking.  Let’s go, it’s time.

Lou: Satan, you rotten motherfucker, I’ll get you for this.

Satan lets out a hearty laugh.

Satan: A wonderful sentiment, Lou.  Revenge is a motivator.  Use it, Lou, use it when you hit that stage and launch into “Love Will Keep Us Together” behind your bank of synthesizers.

After his performance, Lou comes off stage and runs straight into the rock critic, Lester Bangs, wearing a white untucked t-shirt exposing a beer belly hanging over a pair of jeans.

Lou: Son of a bitch, even in hell you’re following me around.

Lester looks perplexed.  While Lou sees himself the same way, and Satan does, too, everyone else in hell perceives him as Daryl Dragon of Captain and Tennille fame.

Lester: Daryl, you’re a fucking genius.  Like Benny, Bjorn and Stig.  You’re the American ABBA.  Fuck Donny and Marie.  You and Toni are the shit!

Lou (groaning): It’s bad enough I have to play this shit, but then to have you get it wrong, like you always do …

Lester: No, this is right.  And I was wrong to think you were a hack.  I’m the hack.  You’re opening a door to the universe that had been locked before.  I can see it now.

Lou: I think the real reason I hate Satan is because he’s smarter than I am.  Hell for Lester Bangs is believing Captain and Tennille are better than The Beatles.

Lester:  But you are!  You are!

Lou: Shit.

And so it went for Lou Reed in hell.  He was shocked to find it wasn’t bad being the Captain.  Lou’s keyboard skills had been reserved to rudimentary piano, and he found that Daryl Dragon actually was talented, if not his preferred mode of talent.  What made it hell for him, really hell, was playing a supporting role to Toni Tennille.  He wanted to kill her, despite the fact that she was his wife in hell.  He did, in fact, kill her a few times: bludgeoning her with a bass guitar, and strangling her onstage while the audience applauded wildly because that’s what the flashing audience message board told them to do.  Still, this was hell, the episode would end, and it would start all over again.

The only time he looked forward to was in the commissary before showing up in the Green Room, where he had chance to eat and mingle with some of the other celebrities in hell.  He would dine on fish sticks and Fanta with Genghis Kahn, or be pleasantly surprised to find how much Richard Nixon knew about professional football.  One day, he noticed Lawrence Welk at a neighboring table.  He mentioned to Satan how surprised he was to see Lawrence Welk in hell, and Satan assured him that Mr. Welk was one of his right-hand men, someone who really understood hell and made it work for him.  Lou quietly noted this, but one day, he got an idea.  The next time he saw Lawrence Welk, they got into a conversation about Glenn Miller, who wasn’t in hell, but Welk found himself intrigued by Lou and some of his ideas.  So intrigued that he agreed to play a few songs with Lou in the next Captain and Tennille show.

This is what happened.  Again.  And again.  And again.  And again … until …

TV Intern (speaking into his headset): Yeah, Satan, we have a problem.

Satan (over the headset): What is it?

TV Intern: I think you need to come down here.  Things have gotten out of hand, even for hell.

Satan: What do you mean?

TV Intern: It’s the Captain.  He’s lost his mind.  He’s coopted Lawrence Welk into playing a Velvet Underground song with his big band, on repeat, for every show.  Some audience members are bleeding from the ears and eyes.  Others are spontaneously human combusting.  Others are cannibalizing each other.  It’s like a George Romero movie down here.

Satan: Oh, dear.  While this does sound appealing, it’s not what hell is supposed to be.  I’m a little busy now, turning Duck Dynasty into the #1 show in America, but give me a few minutes.

When Satan appeared on the show set, he couldn’t believe the studio audience.  They were all naked, smeared in blood, feces and vomit, attacking each other.  Toni Tennille was trying to hide herself in a bass drum, her gown streaked with blood.  “Sister Ray” kept hammering over the studio monitors.  Lawrence Welk had somehow grown fangs as Lou egged him on to make the band play louder.  The song kept building and building.  Fifteen minutes?  They had somehow broken through the time/space continuum and been playing it for 15 days straight.

Satan: Lou, hold on now.

His voice cut through the din and made it stop completely, the musicians still playing, but no sound coming from their instruments.

Lou: Hey, Satan, glad you could make it, we’re playing your song.

Satan: No, you’re not.  You’re defying the order of things down here.  And nobody does that.

Lou: I’m just having a little fun with my friend, Lawrence.  You were right.  He’s got a lot more going on than I ever gave him credit for.

Lawrence Welk: Danke schӧn, Mr. Reed.  You’re not bad, for a Jew.

Satan: Lou, I can’t have you playing this song in the show.  The context is all wrong.  The audience members are sinners who attended opera and classical concerts in life.  Muskrat Love” is their hell.  Not “Sister Ray.”  I don’t know what happened here, they should be able to comprehend “Sister Ray” … but not in this context.  With Lawrence Welk’s band playing that same riff, over and over.

Lou: Do I detect a note of jealousy there, Satan?

Satan: Do you really think you’re going to get over on me?

Lou: No.  But fair is fair.  I’ve done my time in hell.  Why not solve this problem and kick me upstairs?

Satan: This is hell, Lou, not purgatory.  Not a waiting room.

Lou: And I’m not waiting for anything.  But I swear to you, the minute you go back to whatever the hell you’re doing when you’re not around, I’m tracking down Lawrence, and we’re going to do “Sister Ray” until this room is nothing but blood and bones.  Have you ever sat down and listened to all four sides of Metal Machine Music?

Satan: No.  Nobody has.  That’s hell on earth, much less here.

Lou: Well, I got news for you.  “Sister Ray” is like “Love Will Keep Us Together” compared to Metal Machine Music, and I’m already getting Lawrence and his band into the concept of a three-year long version …

Satan: I’ll say this.  You drive a hard bargain.

Lou: Satan, messing with me is like stepping in dogshit.  It’s just dogshit.  I’m not stronger than you.  I’m not more evil than you.  I'm not smarter than you.  I’m just a piece of dogshit.  But don’t you hate having me on the bottom of your shoe?

Satan: Let me dwell on this.

Toni Tennille: Don’t dwell too long, Mr. Satan.  Daryl’s lost his mind!  Please help us!

The scene fades in on a white cloud.  Lou Reed feels himself moving through it.  The first thing he notices is his Hawaiian shirt and white pants are gone.  He’s now wearing a leather jacket, black t-shirt, jeans and boots.  Through the cloud, he can see a big office desk, and behind it sits Billy Martin, former manager of the New York Yankees.  He’s eating a hot dog and has a six-pack of Budweiser on the desk.  He doesn’t appear to be wearing any pants, only a deeply-stained white tank-top, a Yankees hat, stirrup socks and cleats.

Lou: Billy Martin?

Billy Martin: Who the fuck are you?

Lou: I’m Lou Reed.  Satan sent me.

Billy looks at a clipboard on his desk.

Billy: I don’t see your name here.

Lou: We had a verbal agreement.

Billy: No one tells me shit around here.  If you just stand there for awhile, I’m sure George will be around in a minute to do his thing.

Lou: George … as in Steinbrenner?

Billy: Yeah.  He runs heaven.

Lou: Man.  This is just like being back in New York in 1978.

Billy: Sure, kid.  Only my dick doesn’t get hard, and it never rains.

Just then, George Steinbrenner comes strolling through another cloud.  He’s wearing a white silk suit and smiling.

George: Lou Reed!  I just got the email from Satan.  He said you’d be arriving today.  Welcome to heaven, Mr. Reed!

Lou: Yeah, thanks.  This is cool.  I was having a hard time in hell.

George: Satan said you weren’t playing well with others.  You know, neither did I when I was down there.

Lou: You were in hell?

George: Sure.  Billy, too.  But I kicked Satan’s ass in a weeks-long poker game, so he allowed me to talk to God.  Who was in dire need of a management upgrade, so one thing lead to another, and here I am.

Billy: How in the hell does a guy like you get to heaven?  You look like one of those leather queens I used to see down on 14th Street when I was chasing whores down there.

Lou: I’m a musician.  I threatened to play one of my songs for weeks on end until it drove everyone in hell insane.

Billy: Must have been one hell of a song.

Lou: You might say that.

Billy: Can you hum a few notes?

Lou: Not really.  But if you have a busted refrigerator connected to a 50,000 watt amplifier up here, I could demonstrate how it might sound.

George: Oh, dear.  I’m afraid my tastes run more towards Perry Como.

Billy: And I’m more Hank Williams.  Wish he was here.

Lou: Senior, Junior or III?

Billy: Well, Senior, if you must know.  But all three could knock your dick in the dirt by the looks of you.

Lou: You don’t like me very much, do you?

George: Billy doesn’t like anybody, Mr. Reed.  But I think you’ll find he’s like a family dog who only growls at strangers once you’ve known him for awhile.

Lou: It’s OK, George, I’m the same way.  Think I’m going to like it here.

A nearby cloud rustles.  A man with a large, beefy, mustachioed head pokes through a hole in the cloud.

Lester Bangs: Lou, is that you?  I can’t believe it!

Lou: No.  No fucking way.  I thought I left you in hell.

Lester Bangs: Much like you in the 70s, I’m a switch-hitter.

Billy (coughing): In more ways than one, I’d bet.

George: Yes, Lou, some people go to heaven and hell.  From what I understand, you almost did this yourself, but the scale was slightly tipped in hell’s favor.  Lester was good-hearted enough to find his final reward in heaven, yet bad enough to have part of his soul consigned to hell.

Lou: In hell, you thought the Captain and Tennille were the best thing since sliced bread.

Lester Bangs (laughing): That Satan!  He’s a fucking genius!

Lou: I despise him for the very same reason.

George: Well, I’ll let you two get caught up.  The pearly gates are over that way.  Please walk through.

Lou ambled over to the gates, and when he passed through, he came out on the other side, in his 20s, bone thin, gaunt, fingernails painted black, his hair dyed an unnatural shade of peroxide yellow, German Iron Crosses shaved into the sides of his skull.  He was wearing a dog collar, no shirt and leather pants.

Lou: Come on, now, you know I was out of my mind in the 70s.

George: Oh, right, we sometimes forget the most successful times in people’s lives were also their most troubling.

Billy: Tell me about it!

Lou: How about the 80s, right when I kicked the bottle?  And before I started wearing a mullet.

George Steinbrenner waves his right arm, and Lou is transformed to his early 30s, in a much more sedate and presentable version, the only leather in his jacket and boots, along with jeans, a flannel shirt and a motorcycle helmet tucked under his arm.

George: Lou, there’s a Suzuki 650 parked just around that other cloud.  If you get on and start riding, you’ll find yourself heading west on Route 80, approaching the Delaware Water Gap in early October on a sunny day.  Traffic light.  You’ll swing off the interstate in Jersey just before hitting the Pennsylvania state line and have one of the best rides you’ll ever remember.  You'll find a roadside bar just outside Bloomsburg that has nothing but Doc Pomus songs on the jukebox.  Take the ride any time you want.

Lou: Thank you.  This is all I ever wanted.

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